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No end to the smarts in new phones

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How much more can manufacturers do with smartphones? Six new releases offer numerous clues, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the first of a two-part series.

Will it bend? Will it float? Will it think? Will it simply disappear?

Smartphone manufacturers wrestle with these and numerous other questions from consumers who believe handset innovation has run its course. The questions do not embody expectations, but rather disbelief that there’s anywhere else for phones to go.

However, the phone makers keep revealing new frontiers and new ways to be smart. The same questions were being asked three years ago when Samsung was planning the Galaxy S6, the first phone with curved-edge screens. And when it was building the “infinity” edge-to-edge display of the S8 this year.

They were being asked before Huawei announced the first dual-rear camera in the P9, and the first artificial intelligence capability in the Mate 9, last year. They were also being asked last year before Motorola unveiled the Mod family of snap-on accessories for the Moto Z, which also happened to be the thinnest flagship phone in the world at the time.

It’s more than three years since LG showed off the first curved-body – and slightly bendable – phone with the Flex. No one has followed suit, because there was no serious use for that functionality. Two years later they came up with a modular phone, the G5, with interchangeable parts. That also didn’t take off, due to the invasiveness of the interchanging process.

Apple, of course, keeps innovating, although it now tends to play catch-up instead of leading smartphone innovation, as it did for at least five years after the 2007 launch of the iPhone. But it was still the first with fingerprint recognition on a phone, with Touch ID on the iPhone 5S in 2013.

Even the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t Nokia still surprises, introducing two-way selfies – which they call “bothies” – in the Nokia 8 this year.

As these examples show, innovation is no longer about a revolution in gadgetry, but about steady increases in functionality.

Did someone say “performance”? Yes, performance keeps improving, but that’s a given. Every year, when Apple announces that its latest handset is “the best iPhone ever”, many observers grit their teeth at the obviousness of the statement.

The very basis of technology evolution is the ability to put more computing capacity into smaller spaces every year, resulting in the ability of any technology manufacturer to deliver improved performance with every new iteration of any device. If performance does not improve, it’s usually because someone isn’t doing their engineering job.

On that note, we consider the latest devices from Huawei, Samsung, Apple, LG, Sony, and even the little-known phone brand CAT, more renowned for bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment. First, this week, we look at the latter three:

LG V30+: a multimedia dream

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Every year for the past four years, LG has announced a “revolutionary” new phone. Every year, the media have looked, marvelled, and moved on. In most cases, it was more novelty than revolution.

Now, it is allowing the phone to speak for itself. And the new LG V30+ is eloquent indeed.

From the front, with its curved edges, it is easily confused with the Samsung S8. The curve runs through to the back, and both front and back are coated in Corning Gorilla Glass 5, giving it an ultra-smooth look and feel. The edges are made of an aluminum alloy and, with an H-beam construction method for greater tensile strength, makes it more impact resistance than most flagship phones. It is designed for outdoors, rated IP68 for dust and water resistance.

A 3300 mAh battery supports wireless charging as well as Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 – charging from zero to 50% in half an hour.

The most remarkable aspect of the phone is how light it is. Despite a Quad HD 6” display, it feels like a 5” handset, and weighs only 158g.

The V30+ is claimed to be the world’s first phone with a camera lens aperture of f1.6, meaning it lets in more light than any other phone camera. It marginally edges out the f1.7 aperture of the Samsung S8 range. It carries two rear lenses, with one a 13 megapixel wide angle lens, and the wide aperture lens being a standard angle, 16 megapixel lens using Crystal Clear, LG’s own standard for the first glass lens on a phone.

The front camera has a 5MP wide-angle lens with f2.2 aperture, allowing group “wefies” as opposed to one- or two-person selfies. A function called Graphy brings up pre-loaded sample photos that allow the user to choose a mood or style, and apply it to a new photo being taken.

An additional range of video and audio functions and capabilities – supported by

a Cine Video mode that is claimed to produce movie-quality videos, and Hi-Fi Quad DAC audio, with sound tuning by B&O PLAY – make the phone a multimedia dream.

Sony XZ1: the creator’s edition

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The Sony Z series was legendary for its camera performance, with images outshining those from phones with more megapixels, lenses and shooting modes. With the XZ series, it is doing the same with video.

The XZ1 carries the same functionality as the XZ Premium, unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year. So, for example it uses the Motion Eye camera system, which allows it to records video in 960 frames per second. This, in turn, allows ultra-slow motion video playback function, so that the phone can capture high-speed action and freeze individual frames. That lets the user capture movement that is not usually visible with the naked eye.

The most novel feature of the phone is its ability to create 3D images. By panning the camera round a face, head or physical object, the user creates an image that can be viewed from any angle, and built into 3D environments. It takes practise, but is one of the few phone features on any phone that lives up to the promise of making the user more creative.

It appears, however, that Sony’s heavy investment in time, as well as research and development, on camera capability has come at the expense of design. The boxy rectangular shape has barely changed since the start of the Z series, and makes the phone appear dated alongside the sleek new designs of its main competitors.

However, one can see this as camouflage: it hides capabilities that will make many photographers and videographers weep at the investment they had made into bulky equipment that is often matched in output by a handheld device.

CAT S41: Phone for the field

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This is the one most people will never hear about, because they are not in the target market. It is built for a category known as rugged phones, with a brand known for its rugged equipment.

CAT is short for Caterpillar, famed for its bulldozers and other industrial equipment. It has licensed the brand to Bullitt Mobile to make phones that are intended to operate in the same environment as its other machinery. In other words, it has to be rugged, durable, and designed with both the nature of field usage and the nature of the environment in mind.

For this reason, its two most important features are its tough shell and its large battery. The rubberised edges take into account the hits the phone will take from being dropped, knocked around and exposed to the elements. It is rated IP 68 for water- and dust-resistance, and can withstand a 1.8 metre fall onto concrete.

The battery is a mammoth 5000mAh, offering 38 hours talk time and no less than 44 days standby time, meaning one can take it where electricity does not follow

For its specific purpose, this is probably the best smartphone in the world.

  • Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee and on YouTube.

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Prepare your cam to capture the Blood Moon

On 27 July 2018, South Africans can witness a total lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon.

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Also known as a blood or red moon, a total lunar eclipse is the most dramatic of all lunar eclipses and presents an exciting photographic opportunity for any aspiring photographer or would-be astronomers.

“A lunar eclipse is a rare cosmic sight. For centuries these events have inspired wonder, interest and sometimes fear amongst observers. Of course, if you are lucky to be around when one occurs, you would want to capture it all on camera,” says Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa.

Canon ambassador and acclaimed landscape photographer David Noton has provided his top tips to keep in mind when photographing this occasion.   In South Africa, the eclipse will be visible from about 19h14 on Friday, 27 July until 01h28 on the Saturday morning. The lunar eclipse will see the light from the sun blocked by the earth as it passes in front of the moon. The moon will turn red because of an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering, where bands of green and violet light become filtered through the atmosphere.

A partial eclipse will begin at 20h24 when the moon will start to turn red. The total eclipse begins at about 21h30 when the moon is completely red. The eclipse reaches its maximum at 22h21 when the moon is closest to the centre of the shadow.

David Noton advises:

  1. Download the right apps to be in-the-know

The sun’s position in the sky at any given time of day varies massively with latitude and season. That is not the case with the moon as its passage through the heavens is governed by its complex elliptical orbit of the earth. That orbit results in monthly, rather than seasonal variations, as the moon moves through its lunar cycle. The result is big differences in the timing of its appearance and its trajectory through the sky. Luckily, we no longer need to rely on weight tables to consult the behaviour of the moon, we can simply download an app on to our phone. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is useful for giving moonrise and moonset times, bearings and phases; while the Photopills app gives comprehensive information on the position of the moon in our sky.  Armed with these two apps, I’m planning to shoot the Blood Moon rising in Dorset, England. I’m aiming to capture the moon within the first fifteen minutes of moonrise so I can catch it low in the sky and juxtapose it against an object on the horizon line for scale – this could be as simple as a tree on a hill.

 

  1. Invest in a lens with optimal zoom  

On the 27th July, one of the key challenges we’ll face is shooting the moon large in the frame so we can see every crater on the asteroid pockmarked surface. It’s a task normally reserved for astronomers with super powerful telescopes, but if you’ve got a long telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR with around 600 mm of focal length, it can be done, depending on the composition. I will be using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext. 1.4 x lens.

  1. Use a tripod to capture the intimate details

As you frame up your shot, one thing will become immediately apparent; lunar tracking is incredibly challenging as the moon moves through the sky surprisingly quickly. As you’ll be using a long lens for this shoot, it’s important to invest in a sturdy tripod to help capture the best possible image. Although it will be tempting to take the shot by hand, it’s important to remember that your subject is over 384,000km away from you and even with a high shutter speed, the slightest of movements will become exaggerated.

  1. Integrate the moon into your landscape

Whilst images of the moon large in the frame can be beautifully detailed, they are essentially astronomical in their appeal. Personally, I’m far more drawn to using the lunar allure as an element in my landscapes, or using the moonlight as a light source. The latter is difficult, as the amount of light the moon reflects is tiny, whilst the lunar surface is so bright by comparison. Up to now, night photography meant long, long exposures but with cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now capable of astonishing low light performance, a whole new nocturnal world of opportunities has been opened to photographers.

  1. Master the shutter speed for your subject 

The most evocative and genuine use of the moon in landscape portraits results from situations when the light on the moon balances with the twilight in the surrounding sky. Such images have a subtle appeal, mood and believability.  By definition, any scene incorporating a medium or wide-angle view is going to render the moon as a tiny pin prick of light, but its presence will still be felt. Our eyes naturally gravitate to it, however insignificant it may seem. Of course, the issue of shutter speed is always there; too slow an exposure and all we’ll see is an unsightly lunar streak, even with a wide-angle lens.

 

On a clear night, mastering the shutter speed of your camera is integral to capturing the moon – exposing at 1/250 sec @ f8 ISO 100 (depending on focal length) is what you’ll need to stop the motion from blurring and if you are to get the technique right, with the high quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS 5DS R, you might even be able to see the twelve cameras that were left up there by NASA in the 60’s!

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How Africa can embrace AI

Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit most from AI and automation. But, the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of world if we act fast, says ZOAIB HOOSEN, Microsoft Managing Director.

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To play catch up, we must take advantage of our best and most powerful resource – our human capital. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25.

These are the people who are poised to create a future where humans and AI can work together for the good of society. In fact, the most recent WEF Global Shapers survey found that almost 80 percent of youth believe technology like AI is creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Staying ahead of the trends to stay employed

AI developments are expected to impact existing jobs, as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply.

According to Gartner, while AI will improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions more new positions, it could impact many others. The simpler and less creative the job, the earlier, a bot for example, could replace it.

It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills while learning how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.

Another global study by Accenture, found that the adoption of AI will create several new job categories requiring important and yet surprising skills. These include trainers, who are tasked with teaching AI systems how to perform; explainers, who bridge the gap between technologist and business leader; and sustainers, who ensure that AI systems are operating as designed.

It’s clear that successfully integrating human intelligence with AI, so they co-exist in a two-way learning relationship, will become more critical than ever.

Combining STEM with the arts

Young people have a leg up on those already in the working world because they can easily develop the necessary skills for these new roles. It’s therefore essential that our education system constantly evolves to equip youth with the right skills and way of thinking to be successful in jobs that may not even exist yet.

As the division of tasks between man and machine changes, we must re-evaluate the type of knowledge and skills imparted to future generations.

For example, technical skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, but interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence will also become crucial in giving humans an advantage over machines.

“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” This is according to Microsoft president, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum, who recently authored the book “The Future Computed”, which primarily deals with AI and its role in society.

Interestingly, institutions like Stanford University are already implementing this forward-thinking approach. The university offers a programme called CS+X, which integrates its computer science degree with humanities degrees, resulting in a Bachelor of Arts and Science qualification.

Revisiting laws and regulation

For this type of evolution to happen, the onus is on policy makers to revisit current laws and even bring in new regulations. Policy makers need to identify the groups most at risk of losing their jobs and create strategies to reintegrate them into the economy.

Simultaneously, though AI could be hugely beneficial in areas such as curbing poor access to healthcare and improving diagnoses for example, physicians may avoid using this technology for fear of malpractice. To avoid this, we need regulation that closes the gap between the pace of technological change and that of regulatory response. It will also become essential to develop a code of ethics for this new ecosystem.

Preparing for the future

With the recent convergence of a transformative set of technologies, economies are entering a period in which AI has the potential overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of value and growth.

To avoid missing out on this opportunity, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward, a future with AI. We must do so not with the idea that AI is simply another productivity enhancer. Rather, we must see AI as the tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.

It comes down to a choice of our people and economies being part of the technological disruption, or being left behind.

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